Kaka deal highlights Serie A decline
The departure of Kaka from AC Milan to Real Madrid marks the end of the Italian era in European football. Not only can Italian clubs not attract the best players in the world to play in Serie A but now, when they unearth a talent like Kaka, they can’t stop them from leaving.
Italians used to describe their Serie A as ‘il campionato piu bello del mondo’ , the most beautiful championship in the world. It was not just because Italians love nothing more than talking themselves up — Serie A was the first league in the world to sign up top foreign stars, bringing in international talent at a time when the English league, for example, stretched no further than Scotland in search of players.
Beginning in the late 1950’s when the likes of Brazilian Jose Altafini (AC Milan) and Welshman John Charles (Juventus) were among the top performers, Serie A prided itself on being the league that had the money to bring in the best in the world.
After the 1966 World Cup, where Italy was humiliated by North Korea, foreigners were banned as part of an attempt to strengthen the domestic talent base and the national team, but when the rule was relaxed in 1980, the top clubs began importing talent again and before long Italy had become the first league to truly take on global status.
Frenchman Michel Platini at Juventus led the new wave and then the biggest name of all, Diego Maradona almost single-handedly led Napoli to titles in 1987 and 1990. The great Milan sides of Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello were built around foreign stars — the Dutch trio of Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten helped transform Serie A from a league dominated by cautious and defensive teams into a showcase for the world’s best talent.
Germany’s Lothar Matthaeus and Andreas Brehme helped Inter to the title in 1989, and by the nineties, any player in the world who could be considered a match-winner was being snapped up by an Italian team.
Just ten years ago, the top teams in Serie A included players such as Ronaldo at Inter, George Weah and a young Andriy Shevchenko at Milan, Gabriel Batistuta at Fiorentina, Hernan Crespo, Pavel Nedved and Juan Sebastian Veron (all at their peak) at Lazio and the best of his generation, Zinedine Zidane at Juventus. It was the departure of the latter to Real Madrid in 2001 that suggested Spain was beginning to replace Italy as the place where the world’s best could get paid best.
Since then though, England’s Premier League, flush with television cash, has begun gobbling up players that in the past would have headed to Serie A. In the 1990’s the likes of Fernando Torres, Michael Ballack, Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Didier Drogba would have almost certainly been Serie A players. Real and Barcelona in Spain and Bayern Munich in Germany have also proven stronger in the transfer market that Italy’s top teams. It would have once been unthinkable that Italian World Cup hero such as Luca Toni would choose to play in the Bundesliga rather than in Milan or Turin.
A week after Milan captain Paolo Maldini, who played with or against all those great talents from the late eighties onwards, finally hung up his boots, Kaka leaves Milan for a fee of around 68 million euros and Adriano Galliani, who runs Milan on behalf of tycoon and prime minister Silvio Berlusconi conceded the golden era of Serie A was now over: “Ten years ago Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo could have played in Italy but now no one even considers it,” he said.
That is the painful truth for Italian fans — it is not so much that Italian clubs cannot compete with Real’s occasional obscene bouts of cash-throwing that hurts but that Italian clubs are no longer even considered as likely destinations for the world’s best or most promising.
Berlusconi talked up Ronaldinho as the man who will now be the standard-bearer for Milan but the impression is that he moved to Italy after his best years, served with Barcelona, were over.
Money is the main reason for Italy’s relegation from Europe’s elite — Milan, Inter and Juventus no longer have the resources to compete with England and Spain’s top clubs. Italian clubs ignored marketing and merchandising as they presumed their wealthy owners — the Berlusconi, Moratti and Agnelli families — would take care of everything. Moratti still finds the cash but Milan and Juve now operate in the world of budgets rather than blockbuster transfer deals.
With the lack of foreign quality and top wages, Serie A has lost the sheen of glamour that once led fans from all over the world to tune in and watch. The days when Ronaldo and Zidane were face to face in an Inter-Juve match, with a supporting cast of quality Italians and exciting foreign players, is over. Does anyone watch Serie A on satellite or cable anymore?
The proof that this really is the end of an era is the way that the Italian media and fans have just shrugged their shoulders at the departure of Kaka. They know they cannot turn down offers of that size — offers their own teams used to make every summer.
KAKA: Kaka attends Brazilian training at Arruda stadium in Recife, northeastern Brazil, June 8, 2009. REUTERS/Sergio Moraes
ZIDANE: Zinedine Zidane shows his Juventus shirt at a news conference announcing his move to Turin, July 3, 1996. REUTERS/Claudio Papi